"Lake Oswego Style" and "village character" — two concepts that have played a key role in the development of the downtown core — are at the heart of a Community Development Code amendment tentatively approved this week by the City's Planning Commission.
The current code limits downtown-area developments to three architectural styles: English Tudor, Arts and Crafts, and Oregon Rustic. The goal has been to match new projects with the city's existing architecture and maintain the "village character" of the downtown area, which is defined as "a community of small-scale structures that appears and operates like a traditional small town."
But Planning Director Scot Siegel told the Planning Commission on Monday that the City Council had decided "this would be a good time to look at the architectural style — not the substance of the style, but how much flexibility there is within the code to vary from the style."
"The overarching goal," Siegel said, "is to respond to the evolution of our downtown."
According to Siegel, it's difficult to write a development code that accounts for all of the features of any building that might be proposed. That's why Lake Oswego's code is written broadly and allows developers to request design variances, he said, if a necessary part of
a project conflicts with the code.
Those variances have caused controversy in instances where residents have felt that developers pushed too far beyond "Lake Oswego Style." The mixed-use Wizer Block development at First Street and A Avenue is one example: The project began construction in late 2015 after the Oregon Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit that sought to stop the building from being developed with its current design, which neighbors argued was too large and out of character with the surrounding area.
On the other hand, city councilors say they've also heard concerns that the current standards are too limiting and run the risk of making all downtown buildings look too similar. At its goal-setting meeting in January, the council voted to explore code changes to allow more architectural diversity in the downtown area.
After reviewing several options, including major revisions to "Lake Oswego Style" guidelines in the code, the council directed staff to leave the existing style in place and simply streamline the variance process. An initial public review draft of the proposed changes was posted in June, and feedback was incorporated into the draft under review this week.
"I think it's intentionally allowing the style to evolve, but it's not taking our hands off the steering wheel," Siegel told the commissioners at Monday's meeting.
According to Siegel, the biggest areas where the public saw a need for greater flexibility were buildings with unique functions — such as a movie theater, which would naturally have fewer windows than what the code prescribes — and buildings with sustainability features, many of which are recent developments that aren't accounted for in the code.
Planning Commissioner Nicholas Sweers asked about the impact the changes could have on the cost of new buildings. Siegel replied that the cost impact hadn't been calculated, but that the increased flexibility might allow developers to find more cost-effective ways to be compliant with the code.
"(Cost) wasn't really the problem (the council) is trying to solve, but I think it might be a side benefit of those changes," he said.
Commissioner Skip Baker questioned whether some of the variance criteria terminology was too subjective, such as the requirement that a building be "complementary" to adjacent buildings or "better" than what would otherwise be permitted. Deputy City Attorney Evan Boone replied that a certain amount of subjectivity is necessary for the variance to provide flexibility.
"(As a developer requesting a variance), you're asking to be treated differently," he said. "(As the city), you can't write a variance of clear and objective standards, because you wouldn't call it a variance then — you'd call it an alternative track."
Commission Chair Robert Heape said he wanted to make sure the new flexibility wouldn't result in downtown moving away from the traditional architectural styles prescribed in the code, and Siegel replied that the new variance criteria would only be used to evaluate individual features; applicants would have to explain why a given feature is essential for a building to function.
"The scope of review is limited to that function," he said. "It's not opening up every element of the building."
During the public comment period, First Addition Neighborhood Association Chair Carole Ockert requested that the portion of downtown zoned R-2 be exempted from the new rules. The R-2 area forms a border between the downtown commercial area and the First Addition neighborhood, and Ockert said the current code
is successfully turning that segment into a transitional area with higher-density housing.
"It's working well," she told the commissioners. "It isn't broken. Please don't try to fix it."
Siegel voiced support for Ockert's request, and said that the proposed changes were intended more for commercial and mixed-use buildings in the rest of the downtown area. The commissioners agreed as well, and they voted to tentatively approve the code changes while directing City staff to exempt the downtown R-2 zone in the final draft.
The commission will hold a final vote on the draft on Aug. 14, and the City Council will hold a public hearing on the ordinance when it reconvenes Sept. 5.